Research could help save Oahu’s devastated opihi population

It’s called the delicacy of death. Hawaii residents love their opihi and many risk their lives everyday to gather the tasty limpets.

But the species is being over-harvested, especially off Oahu, and that’s why research taking place thousands of miles away is so crucial.

Photos provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show rocky shorelines covered in opihi, taken in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where opihi harvesting is prohibited.

“If we’re on the type of shore that in the northwest Hawaiian Islands would have 1,000 opihi in a very small area and we only see one or two, then we know there’s been a major impact there, so it allows us to assess the impact on the population in the main islands,” said Chris Bird, a researcher from Texas A&M University.

Photo: NOAA
Photo: NOAA

For the past six years, researchers have been monitoring opihi populations there.

The goal is to see what natural background conditions look like in an opihi population that’s not being harvested and compare it to populations that are under severe harvesting pressure like Oahu.

“It’s good information to know so that we don’t come back to the main islands and conclude that a site is picked out when maybe that’s just the way it looks to start with,” Bird said.

Bird says early indications suggest that two species of opihi are blending to create a hybrid opihi. This is significant because when species pull from two gene pools, it may be more resilient against disturbances.

This new information can only help in the effort to re-populate shorelines on Oahu that have been decimated for at least 70 years.

“In my professional opinion, I believe the only way on Oahu that opihi are really going to be able to come back is to stop the harvest on Oahu,” Bird said.

And while he understands why neighbor island residents fear that could create a run on their opihi, he sees it differently.

“Let me assure any neighboring islands that the run on your opihi has been happening for 100 years,” he said. “Officially shutting it down wouldn’t change how much pressure there is on the neighboring islands, what it would change is the few opihi that are here, they’d live.”

And that would give Oahu a fighting a chance.

Watch KHON2 News at 6 p.m. for the full story.

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